Academics take issue with G4S’ defence of its treatment of asylum seekers.
Two weeks ago on IRR News, we published a letter from Yorshire academics protesting that a contract for housing asylum seekers had been awarded to G4S. The company responded to its critics (pdf file, 1.1mb). And in reponse to this, the group have released a further letter – an edited version of which we publish below.
Dear Stephen Small,
We sent our original letter because of sheer outrage that a vast private sector security company feared and distrusted by asylum seekers should be considered as suitable to manage asylum seeker housing. We could see immediately that such a contract would mean up to 900 asylum seekers in Yorkshire facing eviction and displacement over the next few months.
As experienced and in some cases extremely distinguished researchers and university teachers in the fields of housing, immigration, and social justice, we find your description of our letter as printed in the Yorkshire Post as representing ‘incorrect and uninformed views’ deeply offensive.
A ‘private security army’?
Our description of G4S as the ‘world’s largest private security army’ did NOT suggest that all your employees (like your meter readers in our region) were quasi-military personnel. I am sure you would not contest that G4S will receive £100m of public funds for supplying 10,000 guards for the Olympics alongside and liaising with 13,500 troops equipped with typhoon jets and an aircraft carrier. I presume you would not contest that G4S has provided guards for oil installations in Nigeria, nor presumably would you contest that you have had contracts for security at Baghdad airport, or that you provide armed personnel to guard diplomats in Afghanistan. Perhaps this is enough evidence. Presumably you would not deny, as your website suggests, that G4S Gurkha services ‘the largest employer of former British Army Gurkhas in the UK’, provides ‘training support and security for the Ministry of Defence. This includes the pre-deployment training for the British Army’s operational requirements, as well as manned guarding of military facilities.’
As you are the second largest private employer in the world, behind Walmart, and the largest private sector employer on the British Stock Exchange, we would maintain that directly employed or subcontracted personnel within your organisation with quasi-military or armed police functions in total would actually make you ‘the world’s largest private security army’. No research is perfect and you might suggest another company who have a larger phalanx of such employees, but we doubt it.
We would probably quibble with your notion of a for-profit private security organisation providing an effective and ‘wide range of vital public services’ but that debate we can put aside.
G4S and its duty of care
We find your assertion that ‘G4S takes the welfare of people in our care extremely seriously’ problematic. We can start with the recent report a few weeks ago of investigations by the House of Commons Select Committee investigating escorts for deportees, and specifically G4S and their successors Reliance Secure Task Management.
The Committee found that it was ‘a matter for serious concern that contractors should use racist language among themselves. That they were content to do so in front of not only UK Border Agency staff but also inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons is shocking … The contract should be amended to include a provision which requires the contractor to pay a financial penalty to the Home Office where there is a proven incident of the use of racist language by its staff.'
Presumably you would not contest that three G4S employees are at present on bail for actions which allegedly contributed to the death of Jimmy Mubenga an Angolan man in October 2010. You presumably also know that the Director of Public Prosecutions is presently considering whether to bring corporate manslaughter charges against your company.
In 2011 a research project by London, Harvard, Hull and Ulster Universities found that: ‘The story of the UK’s immigration detention centres is one of indignity, danger, and misery as catalogued by many authorities among them Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (numerous times), Al Aynsley Green, former Children’s Commissioner, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Medical Justice, Amnesty International, The Institute for Race Relations, Women for Refugee Women, Asylum Aid and others. In the UK’s detention centres there have been 16 suicides, alarming rates of self-harm, hunger strikes and appalling levels of mental and physical illness. Thousands of innocent men women and children have been put through the detention wringer and despite Coalition pledges to end the detention of children.'
Presumably G4S would not deny that in detention centres they managed in 2010 there was a record 773 complaints and allegations against staff and management; and that three complaints of assault and two of racism were upheld.
Many of the vulnerable asylum-seeker families now anxiously awaiting a decision on G4S housing contracts have direct experience of G4S escorts and detention centre staff. We find it therefore very strange considering this record that G4S is bidding for the contracts arguing that they could actually ‘increase social cohesion in local communities’.
‘Carefully selected housing providers’
In your bid to run asylum-seeker housing in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, you assert that you have ‘carefully selected housing providers including local private and voluntary sector organisations, to deliver services to, and support, asylum seekers on a day to day basis’. We have found this difficult to research comprehensively because such organisations have not been named publicly. But there is growing evidence that private rented housing providers in the area do not provide quality housing with good management and there is a great deal of of dissatisfaction among tenants of such providers. This perhaps sheds doubt on your assertion that ‘These organisations and the people working for them are focused solely on the welfare of vulnerable people’.
In the most comprehensive recent research on the Private Rented Sector by colleagues at York University in 2008 (The Rugg Report) suggests 50 per cent of the PRS nationally is below the decency standard accepted by public sector landlords. It also suggests that asylum seekers and the most vulnerable tenants are concentrated in the what they describe as ‘slum housing’. On-going local housing markets research in the region has reinforced this picture. In 2008 Ian Cole and colleagues at Sheffield Hallam CRESR found in West Yorkshire a smaller sector than national figures of 11.5 per cent with 5 per cent (Wakefield) to 10 per cent (Leeds) a significant percentage of housing was in their Housing Benefit/low income category and over 40% in terraced housing from before 1919.
More recent trends since the banking and housing crash of 2008 have only emphasised the fact that in the Yorkshire region and sub-regions, outside student accommodation, there are fewer than national average for-profit rented houses and most of these are very old slum housing. It is in this market that G4S claim that they can find ‘housing which is safe and meets the Government’s Decent Home standard’. We would ask on what research evidence does it base this assertion? The ‘housing assessment specialists’, G4S claims it will use, will find exactly this picture which we have outlined in the Private Sector Housing Stock Conditions Surveys of local authorities throughout the region.
‘Prison guards as landlords’
We can however comment on your oblique criticism of our use of the term ‘prison guards’ in the G4S asylum housing management context. Our starting point in recent weeks was an interview with a Zimbabwean asylum seeker in Sheffield who said: ‘I do not want a prison guard as my landlord’.
It is a matter of public record that G4S specialises in management of the prison and criminal justice estate. In 2011, G4S managed 675 court and police station cells.
G4S, in the past, has been heavily involved in managing prisons in the USA, and (through its subsidiary GLS).
Recently, G4S took over the management of the first prison (HMP Birmingham) to be privatised and transferred from the public prison estate to the private.
It has also just been reported that G4S is further diversifying by providing services to the police. G4S has won a £200m contract over the next ten years to deliver police services in Lincolnshire. This will involve the transfer of half the civilian staff of 900 to G4S and G4S building a new police station – the first such contract in Britain.
It is also a matter of public record and research that many of the asylum tenants G4S will manage, albeit at arm’s length through subcontractors, have direct and often uncomfortable experience of encounters with G4S staff as escorts or detention centre staff. It seems to us that our characterisation of ‘prison guards as landlords’ is perfectly justified if one follows the evidence – the perceptions of existing asylum seeker tenants who after all are the ‘customers’ of any future G4S housing contracts. Asylum seekers throughout Yorkshire remember the 2005 suicide of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum seeker who was escorted by G4S staff (like many others) from his home in Leeds to Yarl’s Wood. In fact there is a voluntary organisation named after him which provides legal services to present asylum seekers in Leeds.
Housing and housing markets for vulnerable tenants
This also links to the central issue of housing management of individuals and families often still traumatised by past experiences and by long waits for determination of their status as refugees. The G4S contract bid will probably entail the further dispersal and eviction of nearly 900 individuals and families across the region who are presently public sector tenants (one third of the total of 2,600 asylum seekers in section 95 and section 4 housing, although publicly available data make this an approximate figure). The rehousing of these public sector tenants in mainly private sector and private rented sector properties will, in our view, violate their human rights. The rights of physically and mentally ill adults and the rights of children, young people and young unaccompanied asylum seekers are at immediate risk as a result of this new forced dispersal.
We are not entirely clear as to why you believe that the fact your consultants and board members have had experience of ‘many years of successfully working in a highly regulated environment’ is relevant to work in the for-profit PRS (Private Rented Sector) which apparently will provide the majority of housing in the contract. This sector was comprehensively deregulated in the 1980s, and the range of literature on the inadequacy of Local Authority regulation of the sector makes this assertion difficult to understand.
G4S argues, remarkably, that transferring tenants from local authority accommodation,with established high standards of support services, to areas of poor quality housing where, frequently, community and ethnic tensions are higher, will improve social integration. You apparently suggest that one Social Cohesion Manager across a region with 2,600 asylum seeker individuals and families can achieve this.
Looking at past practice we believe that the whole process will be determined by cost and price and not social cohesion and may well produce more tensions, bullying at schools, hate crimes and further suffering for already traumatised families. In our view, the UKBA should seek to know what impact assessments have been undertaken by G4S in conjunction with Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards in the region to establish whether basic human rights of vulnerable children will be safeguarded or, as we suspect, could be violated in the process of forced dispersal from local authority property.The UKBA, in the absence of such research, should seek such assessments from the LSCB in each local authority area where there is asylum seeker housing.The whole contract process is flawed if these assessments are not undertaken.
- Dr Quintin Bradley – Leeds Metropolitan University
- Rachael Dobson – Leeds University
- Jenny Fortune – Sheffield Hallam University
- John Grayson – AdEd Knowledge Company and Sheffield Hallam University
- Dr Simon Parker – York University
- Dr Ala Sirriyeh – Bradford University
Read the original letter to G4S signed by 28 people: ‘G4S and asylum seekers’ housing’
Yorkshire Post story: ‘Fears grow over asylum seeker housing run by “prison guards”‘ (3 February 2012)
Yorkshire Post letter: ‘ Fears over firm’s role in asylum seekers’ housing’ (3 February 2012)
Download a copy of the letter from G4S (pdf file, 1.1mb)